PASADENA, Calif. — Sandwiched between Hoffy hot dogs and sustainable seafood, Danny O’Malley was serving his plant-based products from his company “Before the Butcher.”

“We’re showing our beef crumbles and we mix it with a little enchilada sauce and put it on a Frito. We call it Frito Pie. I gotta tell you, the kids love it,” O’Malley said.

What You Need To Know

  • Plant-based meat companies were just a few of the vendors in attendance at the annual California School Nutrition Association Conference.

  • It's a chance for food service directors from across the state to sample foods for potential school meals.

  • Recent state funding is allowing more schools to consider plant-based options since they're more expensive than traditional meals.

  • LAUSD began its "Meatless Monday" tradition almost 10 years ago.

He’s one of only a handful of plant-based meat vendors who showed off their products at this year’s California School Nutrition Association Conference in Pasadena. It’s a kind of taste test, a chance for food service directors from across California to consider what they want to put on their school menus.

“I have school districts that I’ve never seen before that are showing interest in these types of products,” O’Malley said.

LAUSD began its “Meatless Monday” tradition almost 10 years ago, but it’s taken many smaller, more rural districts more time to change perception. Deloris Terrell tasted from the Lamont School District near Bakersfield.

“I’m with everybody else when it comes to vegan. You’re like, ‘Fake meat? Fake chicken? Fake beef?’ It was really good,” Terrell said.

“Before the Butcher” is in about 30-40 school districts in California, including LAUSD, but one challenge continues to be cost. The plant-based entrees are slightly more expensive and still have to meet the nutritional standards set by the USDA.

“We made a 2.4 oz burger, so it meets the two meat/meat alternate and that’s what [the children] need for a meal nutritionally,” O’Malley said.

Danny O'Malley, owner of "Before the Butcher," hands out samples of plant-based food items at a recent California School Nutrition Association Conference

California took a big step this year, becoming the first state to support plant-based meals by setting aside $100 million in its most recent budget to help schools provide more plant-based options and sustainable and locally grown foods.

“Now that we’re getting all this extra funding for nutrition programs, let’s take some risks,” said Eric Enciso, director of child nutrition for the Colton Joint Unified School District in San Bernardino County.

He currently serves 6 entrees daily, two of which are vegetarian, but hopes to expand. 

“So, those are either a salad and a yogurt parfait, but to add some variety, like the bean and cheese burritos or things like this, that would be something that would help,” Enciso said.

But O’Malley and others in the plant-based community know old habits die hard.

“Sometimes it’s the adult who the biggest obstacle is, not the children,” O’Malley smiled.

Still, he said he’s making progress and plans to continue pushing plant-based options, hoping to change minds and pallets with every bite.

Let “Inside the Issues” know your thoughts and watch Monday through Friday at 8 and 11 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.